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Nothing wrong with lowercase, dude

A reader has a disagreement with a colleague over the construction “I don’t know, man.” The colleague insists that man should be capitalized because it’s a vocative that has the same status as Mom or Captain or a person’s name in direct address. The colleague goes so far as to say that all such substitutes for a title or name should be capitalized: Boss, Sweetheart, Dude, Brother, Toots.

My correspondent doesn’t agree but has yet to marshal a conclusive argument. Let me try to help.

First, in a general way, the tendency in British and American English over the past century has been to reduce the amount of capitalization.

Second, there is a common distinction between nicknames and mere vocatives or terms of endearment, and a quick Google search on vocative capitalization will turn up multiple sources. When you say to your father, “You’re not as funny as you think you are, Dad,” Dad is a nickname, a substitute for the person’s name. But a waitress’s “What’ll you have, hon?” is more of a generic placeholder than a nickname.

If everybody in the office calls the manager “Boss,” as in “I heard Boss say he wants your memo by five o’clock or there’ll be hell to pay,” that’s a nickname and should be capitalized. But in “It’ll be on your desk, boss,” though not exactly a term of endearment, boss is in the same class of lowercased terms of address as sweetheart, dear, and the like.

The colleague’s insistence on capitalization in all instances flies in the face of common practice.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:40 AM | | Comments (5)


Aw man, to think after ALL THAT, I had never even considered whether or not hon should be capitalized. Professor, I believe you did indeed get in the last word. Tooshay, sir.

(Nick)names capitalized; general descriptive terms not, right?


By this line of reasoning, a good deal of insults would also be treated as proper nouns then? I think every literate English speaker on Earth would agree that sentences like "Learn to read, Braniac!" and "What's your problem, Jerk?" look completely foolish. That alone should be enough to close the book on this idea.

The point you make in your "Boss" example is really the beginning and end of the argument though: Is it grammatical to call the person by this name when speaking to someone else?

So, if "You ready for your baseball game, Buddy?" were grammatical then "Can't make it out to the bar tonight, Buddy has a baseball game." would be too.

Shouldn't that have been: “What’ll you have, hon (TM)?”
[ducks and runs for cover]

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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